Raising the Writing Bar

One thing about eBooks is they’re relatively cheap, enabling one to read a greater volume of books for one’s proverbial dollar. (Or rather, the proverbial $2.99) This I have rediscovered while enjoying the amazing selection on Smashwords – all sorts of fun genres, which I am setting myself to read and honestly review. (Being a naturally positive person, I haven’t yet left anything less than 3 stars, which I think is the bare minimum of respect for someone’s hard work.) However, reading work from a variety of authors, both self-published and traditionally published, has reminded me that writing is truly a craft. No matter how interesting your concept, how engaging the characters, or how dirty your erotic fantasy, you have to write well!

What this means to me is an author must, first and foremost, be a writer. There is no excuse for lazy writing. If it sounds like the story you wrote in high school, I guarantee you it is bad. If you find yourself reusing the same words or sentence structure, it is also bad. And please, please don’t end every sentence in a preposition. I could go on, but there’s really no need to. (Curious about how to write and edit well? Check out these fabulous guidelines from eXcessica! They also publish hot erotica. Worth a visit!) Basically I feel frustration as a reader when I find great ideas – and published stories – that are not good writing. It bums me out.

Here’s the deal: self-publishing is a rather arrogant business. In this world, you’d better be able to walk your talk. That includes knowing how to write well. Join writers’ groups. Read your work out loud. Take a creative writing class. There are plenty of possibilities. Just have full confidence that you are a writer, before you decide to be a published author.

Of course, the absolute best way to get better at writing is to read. And don’t read crap; read great writing. (Having chugged through more than my fair share of New York Times bestsellers, I can say that generally speaking, these are not the world’s best writing. With a few notable exceptions, of course. Mostly, leave those on the shelf.) Go in search of authors known for their craft. Study it; read as a writer – take note of perfect turns of phrase, masterful characterizations, story structure. Write these down somewhere, so you can be reminded. Compare your work to that of these masters, and be honest with yourself. The best writers are voracious readers, and they read excellent books. I love finding unknown authors, rediscovering treasured classics, and losing myself in a perfectly written page. Reading books like these makes me a better writer.

Long ago (like, when I was a teenager; THAT long ago) I went to a talk by one of my favorite YA authors, Tamora Pierce. She had lots of great advice for me. (Read more of it here, on my previous post about keeping your day job) My friend loved her first series, the Alanna books, the best, so she eagerly listened to Tamara’s response to someone’s question: “Which is your favorite book that you wrote?” Tamara quite ruthlessly said her favorite book is always the one most recently published, thus crushing my friend’s hopes. However, Tamara went on to explain that she always preferred her latest book because she is constantly working to improve her craft. Each new book represents years of hard work, grueling days of editing, striving to perfect, improve, and grow. This makes total sense to me now. My latest story must be my favorite – though I’ll always have a soft spot for certain older works – because the newest work represents my growth as a writer.

Working together, fellow self-published authors, we must raise the bar. No more lazy writing! Work the craft; hone it. Make each new story your best yet. Reread, go back, edit, make changes. We can – and we must – produce work we can be truly proud of. We owe it to our readers, and to ourselves as well.

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That New Book Smell

My husband and I popped into a local bookstore today – he to buy art supplies, I to spend my woefully insufficient $25 gift card from last year. The place was a paradise. If the world ever ends, I plan to hole up in a huge public library or, if those are all overrun with demon spawn, the bookshop. I could easily have spent hours browsing, but right away three books jumped out at me. I greedily gathered them up, breathing in that special smell of new paper and ink, feeling them crease as I bent the hardback covers to read the inside flap. There is an illicit pleasure in being the first to deflower a new book. Used books have soul, but new ones have that crisp allure of the untouched.

So forgive me, friends, if I’m not online much for the next several days. I’ll be reading!

It is better to be a part-time artist than a starving one

I have always had an affinity for art. Notably visual art, such as painting and sculpture, but also the artistry of words, and of movement in dance. True artists make huge sacrifices for their craft, devoting uncountable hours to practice, revision, and the perfection of each element. This is admirable – awe-inspiring, sometimes – and those who make these Herculean efforts become exceptional artists.

However, they aren’t always paid for it. Yes, yes, I know the whole “starving artist” thing is a stereotype, but like so many it has deep roots in reality. For me, it has a personal flavor.

Two of my grandparents were artists all their lives. That’s how they made a living. They were good, too; professional quality work, because of course they were professionals, and they were always, always working. Yet it never seemed quite enough to make ends meet. They made do, of course, like everyone who grew up during the Great Depression and matured during WWII. But the stress and strain of living paycheck to uncertain paycheck drained them. Their talent never wavered, and a passion for art was with them to the end – they were both still working on paintings the day each of them died – but their zest for life had been dampened by hardships. The hardship of being, if not actually starving, certainly struggling artists.

I remember when I was very young, even before I could read (much less write), I was always drawing. Proudly, I told my grandmother I would like to be an artist. She shook her head and said, “No, dear, anything but an artist.” This from a woman whose whole life had been devoted to art. In her admittedly brutal way, she was trying to discourage me from committing to such a difficult (sometimes painful, always uncertain, occasionally transcendent) career path. Art was always part of me, and continues to be, but after many twists and turns it turns out I followed her advice. I am not a starving artist, as she was.

Instead, I am a part-time one. It’s taken me a while to come to terms with what that means, and that it’s okay. However, the reality is most artists are also – some might say primarily – “something else.” My dance teacher works in an office; another fabulous dancer does her 9 to 5 at the DMV. (Oh, the horror!) Most painters I know are either retired, or weekend/vacation artists who paint in their extra time. Writers, naturally, are the same. You can find us hunched over laptops in cafes, typing madly while occasionally remembering to sip our cooling cappuccinos. Or, as I tend to do, sitting in front of computers in the evening, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, maybe some little snacks, waiting for inspiration to flow from our minds into our fingers (ideally the kind that requires no thinking at all, because the story has already taken on its own breath, it’s unexpected life, and is now out of my hands…). All of this outside of typical working hours.

This is why, as I’ve said before, it’s so important to keep that balance between art and day job. Luckily for me, I enjoy my job (at least, most days). It’s hard, and it takes up a lot of time – 40 hour weeks are not something I know much about at this point in my life – but that’s okay, because it’s my career and I am invested in it. Because I have to be, but also because I want to be.

We’ve all gotta pay the bills somehow or other. But that does not make our art any less important, or of lower quality, simply because we artists are part-time. Would my grandparents have been exceptional artists if they had also been, for example, lawyers or secretaries? Perhaps not, but probably so; just maybe at a different point in their lives, or in a different context. Art is in a person’s blood and bone. Nothing – not even 11-hour workdays – can stop it. But I think my grandparents would agree: if you have to choose, it is better to be a part-time artist than a starving one.

An Overindulgence in Wine and Passion

So I enjoy a drink from time to time. (All right, pretty frequently). After a long day at work, it’s just so nice to come home, have a glass of wine, or a cider or beer, and if it was an especially tough day something with rum in it. Plus, as Hemingway discovered, a little bit of alcohol releases all those creative juices. Anyway, I’m not ashamed to say that I have about a drink a day, on average. And yes, it’s always good alcohol; you want wine recommendations that are both well priced and tasty, I’ve got ’em! (On a side note, at my last doctor’s visit the MD kindly informed me that Medicare suggests no more than 3 drinks per week. Hilarious! They must not have a very stressful job… or else they’re on some other kind of drug.) In short, I’m neither a lightweight nor a drunkard, just a one-glass-a-day kind of gal.

Except for Friday night. There were four of us, and in the course of the evening we started with champagne cocktails, then moved onto finishing a bottle of Thursday’s already-opened white, and after that two delicious reds. At some point the other two went to bed (after a long and fascinating conversation, which was I’m sure in the process of solving all the world’s problems. Too bad I barely remember it), and my husband had tottered off to the hot tub. After going to change into my swimsuit, I realized I couldn’t walk in a straight line. The clasp of my necklace had become Rubic’s-Cube-like in complexity. My head was kind of swimming. To my utter surprise, I realized I was drunk.

What? That doesn’t happen to grown-ups! I hadn’t been this way since an ill-advised experiment with absinthe in 2009. (Word of caution: I do not recommend this. You will end up in bed with somebody you weren’t expecting, and it will be totally weird.) Wow. Drunk. But, okay, I thought, and weaving and hanging on the handrails, I too went to the hot tub. My husband and I lasted about five steamy minutes in the water before taking our light-headed, befuddled, totally inebriated selves up to bed.

Where, to my thrill and delight – and of course without really knowing what was going on, thanks to the Cabernet – we dove into sexual explorations way crazier than anything we’d done before, even in those heady getting-to-know-you days of years ago. (And no, I won’t tell you what they were; I’m not THAT pervy! Also, I think I forgot some of it…) Suffice to say that this was a delicious reminder of how a person can surprise you, even after being married for a while and having seen all his dirty laundry. It was a ridiculous amount of fun.

Of course we slept badly and woke up cotton-mouthed, dehydrated, and hung-over. Blearily, in the morning, we agreed that we should definitely do that again… only without the wine.

Yet the wine was what started it all. Overindulgence, letting yourself go, can be exactly what you need sometimes. Go ahead, get drunk. Be surprised at what you might do. Wine takes away expectations and opens doors to all kinds of possibilities. Just don’t do it very often. And believe me, you should stay away from absinthe.

Why Sex Doesn’t Sell

There’s that old advertising adage we’ve all heard several thousand times before: sex sells. You know what I mean. Let’s say somebody has to market toothpaste, so they whip up an ad with a gorgeous bikini-clad woman lounging on a beach in the Bahamas, with an enormous pink umbrella drink and a frighteningly large, white smile. Buy our toothpaste! The implication being, if babes like this brush their teeth with our brand, then you should too – because then you will become/get with a similar babe.

Of course we all know that’s bullshit. Nobody ever had their life changed because of their choice of toothpaste brand. (Dental care, now, that is another story!) Also, I can’t be the only person who finds these sorts of ads ridiculous. They are so common, it’s not even worth me finding links to pages and pages of them. Just do a quick search and you will find more of this crappy advertising than your brain can handle. (Incidentally, sex is almost always selling women, not men. That’s another annoying piece of reality, but not one I’m going to delve into now, even though it seriously pisses me off).

No, the reason I’m here today is to offer my thoughts on why sex doesn’t sell in the realm of published writing. I have no basis for this whatsoever, except for my observations, thoughts, and experiences. It might be complete nonsense, but if you’ve read this far you might as well stick around and see what I’ve come up with. Here is my thinking: sex doesn’t sell because, fundamentally, it’s boring.

Scandalized, you ask how an erotica writer could possible think sex is boring?!

Personally, I have had the great good fortune in my lifetime – with the exception of some ill-advised dates in college, and that one time overseas… neither of which I shall share in detail – to enjoy some pretty amazing sex. However, when you come right down to it, the mechanics are just about the same every time. (Unless you know something I don’t, in which case please share!) As a sex writer, then, I have to be careful. Nobody wants to read pages and pages of what is, at the end of the day, nothing more than the ol’ in-and-out. In order to make sex sell, there has to be more. This is what makes erotic fiction so much different than pornography.

First, you need a story. Yes, a real story, with beginning, middle, end, conflict, resolution, climax, strong ending, and all that other writer-ly stuff. If the story isn’t good, I don’t care how much sex there is. The way to test if a story is any good is simple: take the sex out. (Don’t worry, this is temporary!) Now read the story. Is it still interesting? Does it make sense? Do all the pieces come together? Great! Now you can spice that baby up, because frankly life is too short to plod through stories with no sexy parts in them. Sex is a major aspect of life, love, and happiness, and I want to read about it.

Next, you need characters. Keep in mind, you are asking your readers to jump into bed with these people. (Or aliens, or centaurs, or vampires, or tentacle-beasts, or whatever they are). These characters have to be real enough, detailed enough, and hot enough, that you wouldn’t mind spending a six-hour Greyhound bus ride sitting next to them. That’s a long bus ride, so these people had better have something worthwhile to say! As a rule, it’s usually polite to be introduced to someone before ripping their pants off. Depends on the situation, though. The characters should guide you to how they might behave, and the kinds of erotic encounters they would enjoy. Let them keep their pants on, as least until they’ve met the reader properly.

What makes sex really interesting, in fiction as in real life, is who you’re doing it with. Also where, under what circumstances, and in what environment. The “how” is the fun part, once you really get down to business, but the sexiest part of the “how” isn’t the mechanics. It’s the unexpected reactions, the wild emotions, the submission to uncontrollable urges, the teasing, the release. We read erotica for that, because those are the things that turn us on. (I wish a couple of those guys back in my college days had gotten THAT memo!) So, give it to your readers! Give them tension and frustration, uncertainty and triumph, because that’s what really keeps the pages turning.

Reading back on it, I really should have titled this post “Why Sex ALONE Doesn’t Sell.” Creativity sells. Great characters sell. Beautiful writing sells (though sadly not as well as it should, because not everyone appreciates it). In the end, it’s the story that sells. In this glutted market of e-erotica, self-published sexual fantasies, dubious editing, and limited readership, you really need to have something more to sell than mere sex.

At the end of the day, though, those are still my favorite parts. 🙂

What’s better than 99-cent erotica? Why, FREE erotica, of course!

So it’s been a while since I did a free promotion, and I think it’s high time to bring one around. For your reading enjoyment, free of charge (though a review would be nice, if you’re in a giving kind of mood), I am proud to offer up my first full-length novel, An Amazon’s Equal. From October 1st through October 5th (2015), you can grab it on Amazon for zero pennies!

Not sure if you’re willing to commit to a full dollar? Want to flirt with the unknown pages beyond the preview? Just bought a new Kindle and have no more money left for books? Well, this is your golden opportunity.

Is An Amazon’s Equal the right book for you? What is it about, anyway? It’s a tale of Ancient Greece (kind of); a young woman’s coming of age (and coming in bed, lots of that); the blessing of the Goddess (which may actually be a curse); and a plenty-sexy, good-old-fashioned, tear-your-clothes-off young romance. Sounds good? Who cares — it’s free starting tomorrow! (Which may look a lot like tonight, at this hour, depending on your time zone).

Please read and enjoy. I hope you do! Get it here on Amazon.